Millions of Americans went to the polls this week in an election cycle that has been called the "year of the woman." In California two former heads of Fortune 500 companies, Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard) and Meg Whitman (eBay), ran competitive races for Senate and Governor, respectively. All told, 298 women filed for election this year in the Senate and House. Making it through the primaries however were 138 women standing for House seats, a new record; 10 women vying for governor, matching the best year also in 1994, and 15 running for Senate, less than the top year of 1994.
When the dust settles however, it looks like there will be fewer women in Congress for the first time since the 1970's. We need more women in office -- whether at the local, state or national level -- to turn the tide from business as usual to positive improvements that touch the lives of families and lead to greater economic well being. America certainly has the talented women. Unfortunately, we're falling back while other countries are moving forward.
This week Brazil elected Dima Roussef as President by a wide margin, joining other Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina that have elected women to leadership positions.
The BBC led off the story of Brazil's election of their first woman President this way: "Brazil President-elect Roussef pledges gender equality." In her acceptance speech Ms. Roussef pledged: "I am here stating my first post-election commitment: to honor Brazilian women so this fact -- unprecedented until now -- becomes something normal and can be repeated and expanded in companies, public institutions, and organizations that are representative of our whole society."
At a leading international forum on women and economic growth, the Salzburg Global Seminar, with fellows from 30 countries, Octaviano Canuto, Vice-President of the World Bank, set the tone: "Investment in women is smart economics and the right thing to do."
The powerful 113-country research presented by the Economist Intelligence Unit examined the opportunities for women in terms of labor policy and practice (equal pay, sick leave and paid maternity and paternity leave), access to finance, education and training, legal and social status (including protection against violence and whether a country had ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women). The United States ranked quite poorly on these measures of opportunity with the exception of education. With 60 percent of college and graduate school graduates in this country being women, we exceed parity.
CEDAW, a treaty which would state our commitment to equality for women and girls here and around the globe, has been languishing in the Senate for more than 30 years. We are in pretty poor company among the handful of unratified countries -- countries like Somalia, Iran and Sudan.
Whatever way you look at the data -- elections for members of Congress, women CEO's and women's representation on corporate boards, absence of the policies that level the playing field and reflect today's workforce of half women and half men -- we are stuck in our ways and lag behind other countries. The U.S. is now 71st in the world in terms of women in our Congress (sliding down from 42nd in 1995). With so many talented and educated women across this country we rank 31st in the world according to the World Economic Forum on closing the gender gap.
This isn't rocket science. Changing these dynamics takes leadership and determination. The amount of compelling business research about the benefits of women in leadership where the tipping point is a surprising 30% has been increasing exponentially. International examples abound with leaders from business and government - male and female - who have decided to focus on balanced leadership to boost their economies and ensure that their democracies are reflective of the entire population.
The new President-elect of Brazil declared, "I would like very much today for fathers and mothers of daughters to look in their eyes and tell them: 'Yes, a woman can.'" We need to be able to say the same in the United States.